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Organization Helps US Homeless Find Jobs

Officials say Los Angeles has 90,000 people who are homeless, and local government is working with charities and businesses to address the problem. Some organizations offer food. Others offer shelter or psychological counseling. One organization, called Chrysalis, that helps the homeless find jobs.

Los Angeles and New York have larger homeless populations than any other U.S. cities. But Adlai Wertman of the charity Chrysalis says the problem is more hidden in Los Angeles. "Despite the fact that we have the same number, in New York they are very concentrated in an area where everyone lives. So if you live in Manhattan, even if you're on Park Avenue, you're going to step over a few homeless people on the way into your limousine. Here in Los Angeles, 25,000 [homeless] people are downtown in Skid Row in an area where most people in LA will never drive through," he said.

That 30-square block area has the biggest concentration of homeless in the region, but there are pockets of homeless elsewhere. There are thousands without homes in beach communities, including Santa Monica and nearby Venice Beach, a neighborhood represented by Los Angeles city councilman Bill Rosendahl.

A former social worker and television host, he came to a shopping mall whose owners, the Macerich Company, have given a cleaning contract to a company operated by the charity Chrysalis. The official says homelessness has many causes, from mental illness to alcohol and drug abuse. "There's all kinds of homelessness, but chronic homelessness is a person that has lots of issues that we need to attack from a multitude of directions. What you're seeing here today is one strategy that does work," he said.

The strategy involves finding jobs for the homeless, to give them a sense of worth and provide the money they need for food and an apartment.

Heidi Olinger found herself homeless in Los Angeles after her marriage broke up. She says many on the streets turn to drugs or alcohol, but she says that is a symptom, not the cause of their problem.

"I find that a lot of them are just disenfranchised. They're completely desensitized. They're overlooked by so many people that could actually help them. And the way people look at them, it's like they're dirt or trash, and so they begin to pick up that mindset. Even if they had good self-esteem at the beginning, by the time that society and life is done with them, they're just shriveled up people of who they used to be, and it doesn't have to be that way," she said.

With help, Ms. Olinger turned her life around. She now has a job as a janitor, and says she deals with things one day at a time.

In Santa Monica, Chrysalis worker Clarence Mitchell Jr. demonstrates a large pressurized machine that is used to clean the mall. Mr. Mitchell was once homeless himself, but now supervises a cleaning crew. "We've got different mall contracts, for different parking lots and everything now," he said.

Public funds are limited -- too limited, say those who work with the homeless. Los Angeles city councilman Bill Rosendahl says more public funds are coming. A one percent tax on California millionaires, brought about by a citizen-sponsored initiative, is funding additional mental health services, including those for the homeless.

Adlai Wertman of Chrysalis says the problem of homelessness is daunting, given the large number of people on the streets. But he says his organization does what it can. "It's just like anything else," he said. "People are helped one person at a time. And you grab a guy or a woman or a family and say, "How can we help you?" And the great thing is that Chrysalis is working with people who are saying, "I want to become self-sufficient. I want my way back into the world, but I don't know how."

Mr. Wertman's charity claims a 93 percent success rate, which he attributes to the people who come for assistance. He says they are ready to get back on their feet, and just need some help to do it.

Photographs by M. O'Sullivan, VOA